April 6, 2019 § 11 Comments
We are a concatenation of memory.
Without it we don’t exist, with it we are formed exactly as we are. Memory is a trap and a lie but it is also the touchstone of truth, sunk deep inside the paradox of never knowing which memories are real, which are only imagined, which are distorted, which are piecemeal, and which are the poisonous and mortal byproducts of nostalgia.
Memory is how we shortcut having to relearn, but also how we shortcut having to relive pain, beauty, happiness, and regret. Memory can be burnished, exercised, buffed, smeared with suntan oil and posed for competition, but it by definition degrades, crumbles, and does so randomly without even the courtesy of keeping the good and chucking the bad.
Memory leaves us with the damp and misshapen grains of sand that, formed early into castles, gradually dry out with old age and fall in upon themselves, leaving nothing but a smooth and level surface, inseparable and indistinct from the other billions of grains on the strand.
I remembered yesterday, or rather it was yesterday when I remembered, wheels spinning along roads I first rode in March, March 1987 … what were you doing then? Were the things that mattered to you then the things that matter to you now? How were your legs then? How were your lungs and heart? How many miles had you ridden, races had you won, defeats had you washed down in all their bitterness?
Did you know in March, that March, what lay ahead? Did you even suspect it? The births, the deaths, the marriages, the divorces, the illness, the recovery, the exploration, the plodding dull traces that you would fall into for decades, grinding out shit so that you could buy more shit, the mere possession of which forced you to grind the night soil even more?
March in those days was free from a melted nuclear plant a mere 60 miles away from this quiet city. Its poisonous fumes now circle the globe and the only thing that the world does in quiet complicity is watch while the powerless-that-be dump another daily hundred thousand tons of cold ocean water on the smoldering core that will burn for a million years.
March in those days was ruled by an emperor who presided over the bloody murder and rape of Asia, later venerated as the titular head of state, the tit that he sucked dry from cradle to grave, as honored in his butchery as in his dotage.
In that March, that March of those days, I was young! I wore no helmet and encountered nothing for it other than the wind through my hair, I was tied to no man or woman, I had no future, my past was too brief and irrelevant to merit mention or much thought, and the only treasure that poured through my fingers was the golden treasure of time, of today.
March in those days these streets were filled with bicycles, old people and young people and in-betweens, pedaling furiously in the fickle temperatures on their way to work, to school, to the green grocer because there was such a thing! Kobori-san sold fresh in bundles or singly, in season, imports unknown, and your teeth bit through the vegetables and fruits with zest.
Somehow the cold and snow and sleet, the last spurts of angry winter gave way to April, and my memory tells me this: It was thirty-two years ago that I first pedaled out west of town towards the mountains, direction a small town called Fubasami whose kanji I couldn’t read and from there to the even smaller burg of Okorogawa, equally indecipherable to an illiterate, and from there to the fork in the road, one way up the sheer mountain climb into Kiyotaki and Nikko, the other way a path I never took, not once, to the purgatory of Kobugahara and the copper mining village of Ashio.
The deepest memory trigger of all is smell, and if you have never read Jitterbug Perfume then you have missed the greatest trick your mind can ever play upon you, the trick of remembering through the flash of scent. Yesterday I ascended into the lower reaches of the cedar forests and wasn’t struck by the flood of memories that come from inhaling the deep wooded scent, no, I have been congested for decades and am blind to smell, mostly.
Instead I was struck by how much I love the cedar, the true emblem of this forest nation, so different from the cherry blossom! Cherry flower, fie on thee. You come briefly, in full beauty, you beguile us with a shimmer scarcely of this world, then you are gone as quickly as you came. Your bole is small, what house or temple was ever built from cherry? Your fruit are tiny and scarcely worth gathering, the sweet meat surrounding a bitter and hard pit that lies in wait to crack the enamel off your teeth should you bite it by mistake.
But cedar? Give me your cedar over your cherry flower any day, evergreen, massive, as useful in youth as it is after 400 years, wood that lasts forever, upon which giant temples, massive homes, shrines of antiquity, all were built. Give me your cedar in rows thirty miles long stretching all the way to the temples in Nikko, so giant and towering, silent and strong, green and sheltering whether rain, snow, sleet, or sun beat down. Give me your cedar whose high branches are home for birds, whose forested floor is home for every creature, cedar, imperious and impervious, mighty, enduring.
As I reached the road’s fork I turned left, towards purgatory, and the road does what it had been doing from the moment I left home, it tilted up, only this time it was a kick. For more than an hour prior there had been no traffic, not a car, not a truck, not a scooter, nothing but perfect tarmac laid out seemingly for bicycle tires alone. There was no memory here as I’d never passed this way before, but a few miles later the road dropped down, connecting with the road to Furumine Shrine.
That I remembered, but how? It went along a river that I’d been along before, and the giant torii that began the giant climb also rang my memory bell, but when? How? For what? I vaguely remembered hiking the mountain trails once, up above the shrine, but with whom? Alone?
And what about you? What were you doing in the mountains three decades past? Were you in the mountains at all? Were you skiing? Trying out the newly invented Board of Snow, the one with a rubber line attached to the tip that you held onto while “surfing” down the slope?
Were you camping? Snuggling in a tent? Fighting fires? Getting lost in the Sierras, stumbling along some rocky route in Sangre de Cristos, hiking the Rainbow Trail, angling for fish in some freezing stream?
My memory’s skein has nothing here but a big hole. I remembered the road, the torii, the trails above the shrine but what fit into the hole was simply the junk and detritus that I invented to fill it. This is memory at its worst, refusing to accept the hole as an empty thing lost forever, and filling it with shit, or worse, with photos from an album, or worst of all, with 1’s and 0’s.
Where my crippled memory still walks with a steady gait, though, is in its rejection of memory aids. I had no compulsion to stop as I pedaled and snap pictures with my phone, because I had no phone. Why do I need pictures to remind me of the past? The past is gone, and if it wasn’t strong enough or sweet enough or bitter enough to imprint itself into my web, then let the whole thing rot, I will save the strands in the web for something that matters, like death.
Oh, and this memory! How did I pedal these roads in a 52/42 x 13-21, gearing bolted onto a steel frame with 36-spoked wheels? Today the plate on the back was a gigantic 25, and the saucer on the front a tiny 36, little children’s gears, things that a baby could ride to the top of Everest with, and here I was, barely turning the pedals on this endless grade? I tried to remember what it was like to have legs and lungs that thrashed mighty gears up beastly climbs like this, but nought.
The road forked, which is what roads and lives do. They fork. And in the middle of this one was a shop selling noodles and ice cream, and so I dithered because the road ahead was long and steep and my stomach was growling and surely there was nothing between here and there. The proprietor ran out and motioned me in, pointing to of all things, a bike rack and a sign that said “Kanuma Friends of Cycling.”
He was old and said, “I don’t know you. I know all the bicyclists who come here. Who are you?”
I told him that I remembered. I remembered when shops like his didn’t know about bicycles or care, I remembered when drivers gave us a half-berth and a honk, I remembered when “cycling” in this provincial prefecture was as novel as piercing low body parts, but I didn’t remember him, either.
He smiled because he had been trumped, and he laughed. “We used to not care, it’s true. But we are friendly now because bicycles are good business!”
Ah yes, business! Why love a thing because it breathes and hugs you tight, why love a thing because it nurtures your soul and your legs, why love a thing because it makes you a woman or a man, strengthens you when you are alone, succors you when you are ill, accompanies you on the high roads, bombs you, heart in mouth, on the low ones, pumps you with speed and terror, thrill and disappointment, why do any of those things matter when it is good business?
Good business, too, is the smoldering nuclear bomb, exploding daily far beyond the lifespan of humanity itself. Good business is human trafficking, air pollution, harvesting life until it becomes extinct, Monsanto! Monsanto is good business, welcome Monsanto along with the bicycles! Park your Round-up here and tip a few grains into your green tea because, you know, it is good business!
My teeth sunk down into the cold soba noodles. They were good business too and my stomach growled appreciatively. A few coins later I got ready to remount, pointing my bike towards the tunnel, where clearly there was nothing ahead but bad business and much of it.
“Not there!” the host shouted. “Nikko is that way!”
“I’m taking the road to Ashio,” I said, but I thought “and bad business.”
“That road is farther. Much farther. And steeper. Bad roads. No bicyclists go there. This way is shorter and better.” He motioned precisely in the direction I had no intention of taking, reminding me of a similar occurrence outside the village of Shimogo, also thirty-two years ago, when I had ignored local advice and almost died on a snow-covered trail stuck high in the Fukushima mountains in April.
Here it was again April, again spring, again high in the mountains, and again local knowledge advising me against bad judgment and poor choices and bad business, and here I was again, utterly unchanged, ignoring facts and seeking something better, eagerly vying for the chance to throw my money and my life after what could only be very, very bad business.
The climb began slowly and slowed down from there, yet I had the confidence of a full belly and the memory of the map graven in my head, huge squiggles closely bunched together for twenty miles or more, up, up, up, bad business at ploddingly slow speed all the way. These are the times that you reflect on your chances if you flat or fall and bust your skull or break a leg. No cars, no trucks, no people, nothing, you will bleed out or go into shock and die and become a local headline. “Cyclist Ignores Warning, Dies.”
“Cyclist Hits Head without Helmet, Dies.”
“Cyclist Loses Way in Mountains, Encounters Snowstorm, Dies.”
Those headlines all reverberated but were drowned out by the counter-headlines that would never be published:
“Cyclist Ignores Warning, Has Ride of His Life.”
“Cyclist Rides without Helmet, Enjoys Incomparable Happiness.”
“Cyclist Finds Way in Mountains through Force of Memory, Pedals in Glorious Spring Weather”
A good wet memory smacked me hard, the memory of exploring these roads three decades prior without a phone, just like today. You can have adventure. You can have security. You cannot have both. After a time the road fell, then fell, fell, and fell some more. Turns were punctuated with loose gravel, sand, and carpeted cedar needles, and I have another question for you.
When is the last time you took a road whose end was unknown? When is the last time you wandered? When is the last time you were … exposed? The road went from tiny and narrow and twisting to impossibly so, the speckling from the sunlight hiding treacherous holes in the pavement, sudden tiny bridges over cascading mountain streams, brakes rubbing and burning and smoking, hands exhausted from the clenched brake levers, hoping that the tires held and yet enjoying the Paradox of the Terrifying Descent: It is terrifying, yes, but contains the kernel of joy from going downhill rather than up, and its corollary: The worst descent is better than the best ascent.
I have ridden more roads than you, likely.
I have ridden more miles than you, likely.
I have ridden more crazy rides than you, likely.
I have ridden more hidden roads in Tochigi Prefecture than you, certainly.
And I can tell you this: The leg from Furumine Shrine to the bottom of the climb up to Ashio is one of the most exhilarating, challenging, beautiful, gut-wrenching, spectacular pieces of bicycling I have ever done in my life or ever hope to do, and all of that before the third major pass of the day had even begun, a climb that put everything before into the deepest shade.
At the bottom the road does what such roads always do, which is go again up, this time the final climb to the pass at Kasuo. For a mile I climbed, slowly, out of the saddle, on a grade with only a few gradual turns until the road became so steep that the switchbacks began, and at the first switchback there was a sign with a number: Curve No. 1.
What would you think when you saw that? Well of course you would wonder, “How many more?” and I can tell you now without spoiling it because the chance you will ever ride this road is zero, the number of numbered switchbacks to the top is 38 … but that’s not really true because there are an equal number of turns that are simply not numbered.
These numbers reminded me of the lettered curves up the fabled Irohazaka climb, which pales in comparison to this monster. At the top the only thing that awaited was silence; this high up it was dead winter with the door ajar just so to let in the rays and tendrils of spring, here a chickadee calling, there a woodpecker hammering on the early feast. In addition to winter and exhaustion, the queen descent awaited, as poor a road with as treacherous a surface as you could wish on your poor 25mm tires, pot holes, stones, gravel, sand, speckling, off-camber switchbacks, collapsed guardrails, and another 30 hairpins to the bottom for ten very long kilometers.
What should I more say than that the road spread out at the bottom into another untrafficked, perfectly paved highway with a howling tailwind and a gradual 10-km climb to the tunnel that dropped you down into Nikko? The day was mostly spent, my legs were wholly shot, and the final 45 km though downhill came with a stiff, in-your-face headwind. From start to finish it took 8.5 hours, including well over an hour at the noodle shop and at the convenience store before the tunnel.
In those hours I relived the things I have lived before, memories soldered to new experiences which, at day’s end, had become memories themselves, memories to be written down here and shortly thereafter, except in fragments, to be forgotten, forever.
April 5, 2019 § 4 Comments
Hello. My name is Bill Smith. I am an avid recreational cyclist. Always up for a new challenge. Have done lots of bike tours. Love Trek. First class stuff. Great guides. Top notch food and drink. Amazing itineraries pegged to your fitness level.
I ran across the Wanky Japan Cycling Tour ad in a public toilet; looked weird but interesting. Can’t beat the price. $15/day, fully guided rides just north of Tokyo. Small city called Utsunomiya; easy to get to.
I have to say I was disappointed. Half a star. Can’t recommend this, sadly. Lots of problems from the beginning; prolly easiest to make a list.
- Guide, Mr. Wanky, totally indifferent to my needs.
- Had transportation issues getting my bike from Narita to Utsunomiya. Wanky solution? “It’s your bike, not mine.” That was it.
- Recommended hotel was cheap but everything was in Japanese. Asked Mr. Wanky for help getting checked in, finding out about breakfast, etc., but no luck. “It’s your reservation, not mine.” Kind of set the tone for the whole tour.
- Day 1 ride not pegged to my ability. Mr. Wanky did a 4-hour ride with tons of hard climbing. I was cooked. Every time I asked how much longer the climbs were he said, “I dunno. And what difference does it make? You still have to get up them.”
- Lot of riding by myself with zero encouragement from Mr. Wanky. Although he waited at the top of all the climbs.
- Very little coaching on this tour. Mr. Wanky: “I suck. You suck. But you suck more.”
- Got super hungry and asked about the restaurant/gourmet lunch stop (I love Japanese food). Mr. Wanky: “We are eating at convenience stores.” Really?
- Knackered as hell after Day 1. Undergeared big-time. Needed some guidance finding a bike shop that could swap out my cassette. Mr. Wanky: “Google. See you tomorrow.”
- Day 2 ride not pegged to my ability at all. Mr. Wanky: “Today is flat.” I guess so, but only compared to Day 1. Hilly AF. And windy.
- Questionable guide skills! Mr. Wanky was lost A LOT. Stopped to ask locals directions A LOT. Ended up getting into arguments with them. NOT REASSURING.
- Technologically illiterate! No cell phone, no GPS, just riding “from memory.” And Mr. Wanky’s memory is BAD.
- Social media unfriendly. Refused to let me stop and take selfies. Mr. Wanky: “Your camera ain’t gonna pedal your bike, turkey.” He called me a TURKEY!!!
- Three hours in I needed to stop and rest. Mr. Wanky: “I don’t GAF what you need. If you can find your way home, rest all you want.” Super hard. Hardest day on the bike in my life. Until Day 3.
- Terrible route choice. Never asked how I felt, what I wanted to see, did I like convenience store food, did I want to stop and see some cultural things like shrines and such. Mr. Wanky: “If you’re here to ride your bike, cool. If you want a history lesson, go back to college.” JACKASS.
- Major dinner disappointment. Crazy famished. Asked for sushi recommendations. Mr. Wanky: “Sushi is for wankers.” Oh, really? Wankers?
- Day 3. Hell warmed over. Four major passes, 18,000 feet of climbing, 115 miles, 8.5 hours of misery. Don’t bother asking where you’re going or anything. Mr. Wanky: “It’s a surprise.”
- Major coffee withdrawal. No coffee shops with lovely ambience, no, sir. Just convenience store coffee.
- Zero help with clothing selection. Asked about the weather and what I should wear. Mr. Wanky: “Wear whatever you want. Do I look like your mother?” Froze my butt off on Day 1, melted on days 2 and 3.
- Indifferent to my pollen allergies. Cedar pollen everywhere because spring. Asked if we could please AVOID riding through the cedar forests. Mr. Wanky: “No.”
You get the picture. An indifferent, rude guide, although it was the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. Also, I got crazy fit crazy fast. But I pulled the plug after Day 3. Not worth the frustration of paying good money and not getting the kind of kudos and encouragement that makes cycling such a fun activity.
April 3, 2019 § 3 Comments
Starting in April, 2019, Wanky Tours will begin offering its first-ever Japan Cycling Tour, a unique riding experience for discriminating travelers who seek only the best. Please scroll to the bottom for booking information.
- Stay in rustic Tochigi Prefecture, where no one gives a shit about you.
- Cycle 80-150 miles per day on roads that will break your legs and leave you a quivering, starving, broken shell of a human being.
- Get lost. Totally fucking lost.
- Ride home, totally beaten, on a local bus after giving out somewhere far from where you started.
- Spring bookings offer radical temperature swings featuring snow, rain, and heat. Whatever you’re wearing, it will be wrong.
- Soak up culture and history as you ride past ancient temples, Buddhist pilgrims, and old villages. You’ll understand nothing because you don’t speak or read Japanese. And you won’t care because of #2 above.
- Stay in Japanese inns and eat delicious Japanese food in tiny bites. You’ll be burning 5,000 kcal/day and consuming 1,500. Do the arithmetic.
- No accommodation is rated higher than one star, guaranteed.
- Tour leader will drop you. You’re on your own. Flat? Tough shit, hope you brought a spare and know how to change it. Sag is what you’ll be doing an hour in.
- The roads are unsigned, deserted, and far from anyone or anything. Experience desolation, hopelessness, fatigue, and emotional/physical collapse. Daily.
“Oh, fuck.” Billy G., USA
“Worst nightmare. Ever.” Suzie Q., Dallas
“We got there, some dude named Wanky took our money, and we never saw him again. Total swindle.” Jeeves C., UK
“I made it the first day halfway up the Kiyotaki climb into Nikko. Snowing, freezing, 18% grades for over five miles, bitter switchbacks, horrible potholes, finally I quit.” Hester P., New England
“This was billed as a spring cherry blossom tour. It was like the middle of winter. We almost died.” Edmund H., Nepal
What to expect
Every spring, Japan’s cherry blossoms turn the whole nation a pretty shade of pink, very different from the corpse-gray you’ll exude after a day or two. The most southerly island of Kyushu sees some of the earliest blossoms, and our six-night tour in northerly Tochigi Prefecture will have few if any cherries in bloom. It will be cold AF, windy, and desolate, all at high altitude.
If your idea of fun is getting drunk, being pampered, and toodling on flat roads for a couple of hours in between bacchanalia, our Spring Tour will be a nasty shock to your cupcake-ride-accustomed legs. The first day starts nasty, brutish, and long. Climbs are unbearable and endless. However, you’ll be fed dribbles of hot coffee from roadside vending machines, if your fingers can thaw enough to feed in the coins.
Wanky Tours are based in the industrial city of Utsunomiya, a flavorless, drab, working-man’s city of gray and brown. Nightlife is nonexistent except for one or two sad strip clubs, and the local cuisine is greasy, salty, but thankfully cheap. You won’t care about the food as you’ll be famished beyond words and will gratefully swallow anything that isn’t nailed to the floor.
The key feature of Wanky Tours, in addition to difficulty, misery, bad weather, and substandard accommodations, includes a boring indifference to all your travel needs. For example:
- Getting around: No one will help you. Lost? Too bad, so sad.
- Baggage service: It’s your shit, deal with it.
- Bike repairs and maintenance: Hope you know how to use a wrench or find a bike shop.
- Understanding local customs: Not. Our. Problem.
- Internet: Can’t live a week without Facebag and the Gram? You will.
Why Wanky Tours?
Our satisfied customer, Eddy M., says this: “I’ve done bike tours all over the world, but nothing compares to a Wanky Tour. Brutal, indifferent, no coddling, at the mercy of the elements, all you do is ride, eat, sleep, survive, and pray you make it home. I’ve never been so destroyed or learned so little about a culture. It was like the Bataan Death March without the camaraderie. Can’t wait to come back.”
April 2, 2019 § 2 Comments
I went through a very short podcasting phase a couple of years ago. Podcasting is difficult, requires technical expertise, and overwhelmed me after my first couple of attempts. Hats off to Brian Co at the SoCal Cycling podcast, now in its fourth year and going strong. If you want quality journalism and amazing production values, he’s your guy.
However, one of my podcasts was about Lance’s upcoming trial date back in 2017. A reader transcribed it and emailed it to me, suggesting I post it as a blog. I’d done the whole thing off the cuff and didn’t have a transcript. When she sent it I thought it was dated and irrelevant, but then I read it and realized that I hadn’t posted anything in a couple of days, so here it is.
It’s long. Dated. No pictures. And it ain’t Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Lance’s Date with Destiny
Today is back to the future day, where we check in on cycling’s bad boy and eternal scoundrel, Lance Armstrong. I tried to figure out what in the world is going on with the lawsuit he is so afraid of that he kicked the trial date down the road some more. This guy is in no hurry to face the jury, he has been in litigation now for five long years, and it’s not over yet. Sometimes the Lance Armstrong saga feels like fighting the Medusa. You lop off one head only to find out you are locked in mortal combat with another one. Everytime I swear this is the last time I will ever, absolutely, positively EVER say anything about that fucking guy, he makes himself relevant again.
How, I hope you are wondering, can this jerk possibly be relevant? TDF titles: stripped. Cheating ban: lifetime. Public reputation: in the shitter. Significance to cycling: none. But actually, he is relevant. Very relevant. And I am starting to make my peace with his permanent installation in the constellation. He is relevant because if you are in your mid-forties to late fifties, he was the definitive character in your personal cycling history. Young riders nowadays don’t know about him or care, and they certainly don’t read Outside magazine, or read for that matter, but those of us who were racing when Lance was young will ever be bracketed by the events in his life. His name strikes a sour note that can’t be listened away, if only because the note was once so sweet. YOU say “He is old, slow, wrinkled, balding and gray.”
But guess what? So are we.
Lance’s latest foray into relevance was written about, and written about well, in the September 15th issue of Outside Magazine. The gist of the article was simple and written by S.C Guin. Read it. Storyline 2017. Lance is racing ahead with his life, he is surrounded by hangers-on. He is rich. He’s a family man. He’s atoning for his sins. And he is still an asshole.
But we can stepmother this fairy tale as Lance’s date with destiny on May 7th, 2018, the date set by Judge Cooper, on which his false claims act and fraud trial will begin in a Washington, D.C. federal court. If the worst case scenario comes to pass, Lance will get dinged with a 96.9 million dollar judgement that will vaporize almost the entirety of his personal wealth. Suddenly, he might have to struggle to pay for the kids’ college, just like the rest of us. Dither between e-tap and mechanical, check the tires again to see if they really need to be replaced …
And Lance is worried about his dance date, too. In the Outside article he sends a clear signal to the Department of Justice that he is in the mood to settle. The risk here is sky-high for Lance, but only marginal for the government. Lance is already $15 million down in legal fees, but the government has also spent a fortune on this case. And there is no reason to think they will win in front of a jury, given that they’ve been out- maneuvered at almost every turn in the pretrial phase of the case. As the pressure builds, and both sides start to calculate how much they could lose, for Lance money, and the government a big fat black eye and a couple of lead lawyers careers wrecked, a settlement seems possible.
But they aren’t there yet, and they may never be, because the sum will be large, and in the meantime, the trial date is real.
In order to understand why Lance is pacing the floor, you have to understand the legal guts of his case. It’s remarkably simple. His lawyers have pared away virtually every single issue in the litigation until only one remains: Did the US Postal Service get what it bargained for? In other words, even though Lance lied, did the government come out ahead?
Because, if they did, Lance wins. That’s the only thing left in this case. The government tried to set up the issue for trial differently, arguing the value of the sponsorship was zero, because they would have never signed up if they had known about the cheating. If they paid $32 million for something worth nothing, then the USPS’s actual damages are three times the actual $32.3 million in sponsorships payments. Since the damages are trebled in a false claims act lawsuit, Lance would be on the hook for three times 32.3, or $96.9 million.
Armstrong tried to set it up differently, contending that the benefits USPS reaped from having him as their poster boy demonstrably outweighed the cost of sponsorship, and that the government’s actual damages are zero in that they got what they paid for in terms of publicity and actual media impressions, and then some. In the single biggest pretrial wrangle of the case, both sides moved for summary judgment, essentially asking for the court to rule in their favor before the case goes to a jury. The court’s ruling rejected both arguments, holding that the case would have to go to the jury to decide whether or not the USPS had been damaged. And if so, by how much?
This was ostensibly a win for the government, but Armstrong’s lawyers still get to go to the jury with the best possible of weapons. They have experts that will try to prove that USPS was not harmed and they’ll have withering cross examination to debunk USPS’s methodology for calculating the financial value of damages. That shouldn’t be hard, because there is no methodology. At least none that will survive a Daubert challenge. The court said in the motion for summary judgment that damages in FCA cases are generally measured based on the “benefit of the bargain” received by both parties. Under this approach, the government’s actual damages are equal to the difference between the market value of the products it received and retained, and the market value that the products would have had if they’d been of the specified quality.
Applying this benefit of the bargain rule is often straightforward. In a typical case involving a governemnt supply contract, for example, the difference in market value between a conforming good and a non-conforming good can easlity be calculated, for example, computing the precise cost to replace a falsely branded tube in a radio kit supplied to the government. Calculating the benefit of the bargain becomes more difficult in cases where the market value of the product or the service involved is not readily ascertainable. This is particularly true for contracts for personal and professional services, like those provided by Lance’s cycling team. And the difficulty of this will play into Armstrong’s hand come trial time.
Armstrong buttressed his argument by attacking one of the government’s experts who attempted to document the value of the contract as well as a separate expert who testified about the value of the negative publicity resulting from the revelations of Armstrongs PED use. By striking these evidentiary claims, LA would have gutted the government’s ability to prove damages and would have won the case. Even if he were a bad boy, USPS could never have proven they had lost money on the deal. However, the judge held that both declarations did in fact have some bearing on the calculation of benefits USPS obtained from the cycling sponsorship, and thus were relevant to the actual damages. This doesn’t mean that a jury will buy the experts’ testimony, though. It just means that it will go to trial. Rest assured, the entirety of Armstrong’s defense will be based on demolishing these experts, and the fuzzy nature of their arithmetic means that he will likely succeed. As long as the jury understands the speculative nature of the experts’ calculations, Lance will likely win.
Armstrong’s claim that the USPS got more than it paid for has two parts: First, USPS said in documents obtained through discovery that it had obtained increased sales of $24 million over and above what it had paid for the Armstrong sponsorship. This seems to show that USPS clearly benefited. But the court said it isn’t increased sales, but rather increased “net” sales and USPS itself admitted that they couldn’t isolate reasons for the increased sales, which were affected by other factors in addition to the Armstrong sponsorship. In other words, the court said that the $24 millionnumber that Armstrong claims he increased USPS sales by was speculative, and therefore, the trial has to go forward on this point because it is a factual matter for the jury to decide.
Lance’s second prong in showing the benefits USPS had received was the alleged positive media exposure for being associated with such a cancer crushing, biking badass. If USPS had paid for all that good press, according to Armstrong’s experts, it would have cost $103 million, a number that far exceeds the $32 million in sponsorship. However, Armstrong’s own expert admitted that not at that time, or this time, or anytime, was anyone on earth ever going to spend $103 million on a cyclist for advertising a product. This strongly suggests that it’s what I call a unicorn number.
Think about it like this: Say you had a marble that cost a penny, and someone took the marble and smashed it into a thousand bits, then an expert examined the shards and opined that if someone were to manufacture each of those pieces separately and combine them into a single marble, it would cost $1000. Yes, except for the fact that no one would ever do that. They’d simply go to the five-and-dime and buy another marble for a penny. Even with things looking grim for Lance’s alchemist accounting, AND his astrological marketing analysis, the bottom line is that the government, who has the burden of proof, still cannot quantify how much it was harmed by the publicity surrounding Armstrong’s doping admission. And this difficulty is real easy to explain: The value of the bad press was zero.
Not a single person on earth thought worse of the USPS after LA flunked his Oprah exam with flying colors. And that’s not just because the sponsorship had ended five years before USADS’s Reasoned Decision and Joe Public had forgotten about USPS and its link to Lance in the first place. It’s because no one had a good impression of the USPS to start with. Americans may disagree on Trump, and they may disagree on Obama, but one thing they all hate in unison is the USPS. The USPS service hired Lance to provide services that no one could provide: the service of rehabilitating their horrible image. And the telling fact isn’t in their muddled claims about increased revenue, it’s in the fact the the USPS had, and has, an intractable PR problem that is created and maintained by Congress and the mechanism through which USPS is funded. Fixing USPS’ image with a few manorexic big wigs pedaling through sunflower fields in France, really? Uh, no.
There’s another huge problem with the USPS claims that the Armstrong deal was a money loser. The only way the USPS can make money on first class stamps, their traditional profit center, is this way: by people buying the stamps and not using them. That’s it, period. The reason is that no matter how much their sales increase, they lose money on every single first class mail transaction. The only net positive revenue they could have generated through Armstrongs publicity, or anyone’s publicity, was by selling first day covers or other collectibles that would have never been redeemed. Can you imagine a business model that depends on customers never using what they purchase in order to succeed? Can you say gift cards? What about lottery tickets?
By hiring Armstrong to increase Joe Public’s awareness of the USPS, and to encourage Americans to go write more letters, the USPS was hiring Lance to provide a service that, had it been successful, would have lost them even MORE money. From 1998 to 2003, the lucrative first class mail business was mortally wounded and had turned belly up. The Queequeg that had stuck the harpoon in the belly was email, and the USPS was blocked by Congress from leaping into equal parcel competition with UPS and Fed Ex. The first class mail biz that had been their cash cow for over 200 years had become the mill stone around USPS’s neck. Some estimate that it costs the USPS about twice the price of a stamp to actually deliver a first class letter. Nor would a Lance-led PR victory have reversed this trend, even if he’d won a hundred tours, riding yellow unicorns that farted cancer clearing gas clouds through pediatric oncology wards. USPS’s other services, junk mail, overnight mail, periodicals and packages, were all subsidized by the incredible profits of the first class mail business. Make that the formerly incredible profits.
When Lance was winning his tours, USPS was a bottomless well of red ink. It’s amazing that Lance’s lawyers never identified this gaping gash in the government’s argument. Namely, that Lance didn’t cause them to lose more money, they were operating on a business model which guaranteed that greater revenue would lead to greater losses. The telling fact is this: USPS desperately wanted out of the sponsorship, much earlier than 2003 when the relationship finally ended and Armstrong was picked up by Discovery Channel. That’s the time when he was at the absolute top of his game, years before Landis outed him for doping. Management at USPS understood better than anyone alive that the Armstrong sponsorship was a bleeding failure, not because he was a doper and the value of his brand was zero, or because he had somehow besmirched their snow-white reputation, but because the more they sold, the more they lost. And every year they re-upped with team Lance, they were dumping millions of good money on top of the bad.
Long before 2003, USPS wanted out. What had started as a feel-good promotion for the stodgy old USPS, a kind of bargain basement expense on a nutty, niche sport, had morphed into the money eating Lance monster. The contracts for title and presenting sponsorships were reaching $9 million per year, and under the terms of a proposed new contract figure would bloat to about ten percent per year. And despite their fuzzy internal memos about $24 million in new revenue, and “We’re getting more from this relationship than they’re paying,” USPS knew better than anyone that they were getting nothing out of the sponsorship. This coincided with drops in bulk mailing contracts and budget crises that were coming to a head over USPS’s roughly $90 billion dollars in pension liability. $90 billion? What in the fuck were they doing spending so much as a penny on some shaved-leg asshole who raced his bike in France and was mean to people? And USPS had known from the very beginning that the Lance deal was stupid and meaningless, but, like every huge beaurocracy, once they got started it was damned hard to stop.
Not least because those were the heydays of the Armstrong bandwagon. You had to be there to believe the Armstrong feeding frenzy. Outside marketing people who wanted the deal to continue came up with all kinds of ways to turn the sponsorship into a net positive deal. But it took very little to realize that USPS did not give a fuck times a million. During the Armstrong era, post offices had every kind of tri fold and display, even at the lamest faux gift shops where you could buy postal themed crap. But you never, ever anywhere saw a US Postal cycling team display. No Sam the Eagle in a USPS jersey, none of those USPS themed action figure sets, where you might have a car and eight cyclists made of plastic or something like that. No posters, no caps, no jerseys, no rah-rah. No flat fucking nothing. USPS had checked out almost from the start because they were running a business based on losing money. Lance might be able to whoop up on cancer, but he was an impotent little clown show in the context of USPS’s debt. Did I mention the number $90 billion?
Even things as basic as Champs Elysees sales never happened. The vendors on the Champs Elysees as the Tour comes through make incredible money. Everything for sale is shlock, over-priced and ugly, dumb. But people want a memento. Do you remember those awesome USPS commemorative stamps that showed Lance and the team winning the tour? Lance in the yellow jersey? Lance and the guys doing a TTT in postal blue? Lance sticking a red hot poker up cancer’s ass? Remember those stamps? No? You know why? Because they never existed. USPS never even bothered with a vending truck near the finish line selling vintage USPS Lance commemorative stamps, items that would have sold by the book and by the sheet at ungodly markups. If there were ever a stamp someone would never use, it was a stamp purchased in France when they went over to France to watch Lance win the Tour. And not just win it, but crush it, leaving nothing in his wake but defeated dreams, empty syringes, howling Betsy and outraged Greg and Kathy.
USPS could have easily sold sheets of 50 cent stamps with a center image of the USPS eagle logo, and sold them as posters, or framed them, or framed and signed posters by Lance, or even Lance and the team. But nope! Nothing. Ever. USPS didn’t make money on Lance for the reason they never made money on anything. The first class mail cash cow had been slaughtered, skinned, butchered, packaged and sold at Safeway for pennies on the dollar. So the irony, here on the eve of trial, is that Lance’s best argument is the one he can’t use: USPS knew it was entering into a money loser and was defrauding the American public along the way by pretending that sponsorship deals of any kind were anything besides a breach of fiduciary duty to the taxpayers. The great news though, is that Armstrong can rest easy. Department of Justice lawyers may be clumsy in pretrial, but they are horrible in front of a jury, especially when they have to contend with top dollar private sector lawyers who are sharper than shark’s teeth. Armstrong’s team has, through relentless procedural mud fighting that has set Sir Lance back a cool $15 millskies, whittled the entire case down to a single issue: Did USPS lose more than it got? And by the time Armstrong’s lawyers get through with the fake numbers a dodgy calculations of the government’s experts, the case will be too muddled or too in tatters for a jury to do anything other than render a defense verdict. That’s my call.
Lance will still be able to hang onto his hundred millsky, his house in Aspen, his house in Austin, his bike shops, especially his tainted tour jerseys. Because even though close to twenty years have passed, no one from the years of 1999 to 2005 has stepped up asserting THEY raced clean, to claim them. You know what? No one ever will. Now isn’t that funny?
POSTSCRIPT: Lance settled with the government, paid a paltry $5M, and went his merry way.
March 31, 2019 § 8 Comments
On Saturday we rode over to the NOW Ride. The previous week I had been dropped very early when the Subaru Santa Monica pain train led by Evens Stievenart rolled away at express train speeds on PCH.
This week the Subaru team was gone, but in their place, and indeed he replaces an entire team, was Phil Gaimon. Oh, and beast Jeff Mahin, and a couple of other ornery fellows.
We were trucking along PCH at about 35 and I saw Tony Manzella. I handed him a couple pairs of socks.
“Thanks, dude,” he said. Tony has enormous feet along with an enormous heart and lungs and my South Bay socks are the only ones that will fit his boxcars. He tucked them under his jersey.
This was only my third NOW Ride and a lot of people were giving me the stink eye because of my jaunty cloth cap, hairy legs, and general frailty. At Pepperdine Hill, where I always get dropped, I got dropped. First, Phil and Jeff and their pal rode away. Next, a clot of chasers rolled away.
I had about ten bike lengths to catch back onto the chasers but you know that is never going to happen. This time somehow it did. A little dude breezed by and I glommed on. He got me over the top and gave it 100% to close to about five bike lengths. I waited until I judged him spent and dashed past, barely connecting.
There wasn’t any rest, and what had started with 70 or 1,000 people was now down to the three guys off the front and a chase of about 20, make that 18, I mean 17, 16, 15, and finally fourteen. I was the last guy, dangling, and barely hanging on by a meat string each time the young fellows surged, trying to shake loose the old and infirm, me.
As we approached the descent into Zuma, I saw Jeff and Phil on the side of the road. They had stopped with their friend, who flatted, which instantly transformed our chase group into the lead group. At the bottom it is a flat run-in, a couple of miles, to the sprunt finish at Trancas Canyon Road.
The young fellows kept it single file. I hunkered down on Tony’s wheel in last place. I was pretty pleased with myself because I was gonna get fourteenth on the NOW Ride, a miracle. I was already writing up the glorious blog. It was gonna be wondrous.
With about 500 yards to go, Tony glanced back at me. Tony only glances back at you for one reason. It’s because he expects you to follow and he don’t want no excuses.
Tony has done this to me before and it follows a script: He accelerates and I get dropped.
He jumped hard, crazy, insanely, 8,000 gigawatts hard. I don’t know if it was because I was ovulating or because of my oval chain rings … oh, what am I saying???? It was because of my JAUNTY CLOTH CAP that I hung onto Tony’s wheel.
He blew past the front so fast that they couldn’t have caught him if they’d gotten advance notice by telegraph, and once he is going if you are in his draft it is like being towed by a barge that is going 500 knots. “Man, this is great,” I thought, followed immediately by “Man, I don’t know if I can keep this up,” followed by “Fuck this hurts,” followed by “He’s riding me off his wheel. Again.”
At that second he slowed and looked back. “Go, Seth!” he shouted.
I didn’t know what to do. I can’t sprint. I could barely pedal I was so tired. I had no idea what was the correct reaction in such circumstances, so I blurted out what I guess they don’t do in the last 100m of a lead-out at Paris-Roubaix, which is shout back, “YOU GO!”
He shook his head. “Seth!” he commanded. “Go!”
I looked back and saw the piranhas charging hard, so I slingshotted around Tony and got to the imaginary finish line first at the over-ripe age of 55. The young piranhas were not too happy and they kind of glared at my jaunty cloth cap, but not for long because there was a giant, slowing dump truck turning right and we almost slammed into the back of it. Then Tony wheeled into the parking lot of the gas station and shouted in his chain gang boss voice, “Good job, Seth. You just won the NOW Ride!”
On the way back home with Baby Seal and Kristie, I saw a tempting berm of sand and dirt and mud and decided to celebrate my NOW win with a display of the amazing bike handling skills that made me who I am today.
March 27, 2019 § 5 Comments
I was standing outside the Sckubrats at the Center of the Known Universe a/k/a CotKU when Ken came up to me.
“Man,” he enthused, “the new Methods to Winning elite team kit is out and it is beautiful!”
“Yes! And your logo looks great on it!”
I was stoked. “That’s awesome! When do I get mine?”
He put his arm around my shoulder. “Seth, I said you look great on it. Not in it.”
Saturday Night Pizza
I went to the Methods to Winning Academy Team launch this past weekend in Santa Monica. The five riders who make up the team, Nigel DeSota, Erick A. Herrera, Michael Barker, Christian Molina, and Cesar Reyes represent excellence in bike racing, but they represent something else: What happens when people come together to support diversity in cycling.
Some of America’s best professional and elite bike racers have always been African-American. Marshal Taylor, Nelson Vails, Rahsaan Bahati, Justin and Cory Williams all typify the very best of the sport. But giving everyone a chance to take a pull and engage is something that has never been anywhere on the priority list at USA Cycling, or the USCF before that. Indeed, America’s first world champion in any sport, “Major” Taylor, retired because he could no longer endure the racism.
Fancy masters teams in SoCal, to say nothing of junior racing squads, typically have the diversity of Wonder Bread. And how could they not? When some of the sport’s shrillest voices such as CBR announcer David Wells appear to be, at least in my opinion, unabashed, card-carrying Trump lovers, the sport’s overall message may be subtle, but sometimes it’s clear: White riders only, please.
Fighting the good fight
Fortunately, led by the Bahati Foundation, Giant Bicycles USA, Muscle Monster, FFWD Wheels, Eliel Cycling, KMC Chain USA, Birdworx, Rock-n-Road Cycles, Specialized Bicycles, and Pioneer Cycle Sports USA, not everyone is content to accept the status quo. As one of the sponsors of the Academy Team, it’s easy for me to see what has brought this group together, and it’s simple: The original mission of the Bahati Foundation, which from day one has always been the motto “Give Back.”
The team launch was low-key but impressive, in other words, lots of great pizza. We heard a great presentation by Rahsaan, and watched this video that laid out the vision of Methods to Winning and its principals, who in addition to Rahsaan include Charon Smith, Ken Vinson, and reigning national champion Justin Williams.
The point behind all this is that if you want cycling or any aspect of society to be representative of the people who make it up, you have to provide opportunities. In cycling that means bikes, wheels, race support, entry fees, nutrition … and pizza.
It’s going to be a fun year for these enthusiastic, hard-charging young racers. Not just because of the racing, either.
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March 22, 2019 § 6 Comments
There is some stuff you can only see on a bike ride, stuff like watching an Olympic medalist swimmer and 7-time world record holder launch off a steep muddy descent through the air like a missile, shouting, “I’m fine! I’m fine!” even before she lands with a thud and rolls into the bottom of a deep ditch.
I was in front and everything up until then had been, well, fine. You could hear the tires quietly rolling behind, everyone picking a line down the muddy slope, when suddenly I heard the onrushing sound of an accelerating bike picking a completely careless line off the trail, the sound of quiet tire-on-dirt replaced by the chaotic noise of tall grass being torn aside by the onrushing bike, and then the immortal “I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine!” and thud.
I’ve been good, but I guess I’ve never been fine
Baby Seal was unimpressed with the head sticking out of the ravine, the body twisted the just-so way of someone who was going to be quadriplegic, and least of all impressed by the “I’m fine.”
“Dude,” he said to the Olympian and world record holder. “You can’t crash like that until July. The Tour is in July.”
I was more concerned about having killed one of America’s greatest swimmers ever on her first Wheatgrass Ride, and concerned about how fine she really was, because she kept saying “I’m fine!” even though she hadn’t actually moved after crumpling into the ditch.
Sure enough, up she sprang. “See? I’m fine!”
And then she did what you would pretty much expect from an Olympian and world record holder. She hopped back on her bike and half-pedaled, half-walked, half-swam down the hill in an abbreviated 200m freestyle.
I tried to think of something encouraging to say, something better than, “Good job not dying back there.”
So instead I did what cyclists do whenever one of their own narrowly avoids a horrific demise. I understated. “Not bad for your first time off-road. Pretty solid 4-point landing, that.”
Meanwhile back at the coffee shop
As we sat at the Sckubrats recapping the day’s event, which will never be forgotten, Sippy, who was indeed fine, had a few questions. “How come that other girl told me that it was an easy descent?”
“Her? The one who turned around and went down on the paved road after telling you it was fine and you’d have no problem on the muddy, treacherous, steep horsetrail?”
“She was on a bike, wasn’t she?”
“So she was lying. If the person is on a bike, he/she is lying.”
“‘It’s only a few more miles. It’s not too steep. It’s not too windy/cold/hot/rainy/snowy. The road is fine. There’s sag. It’s no drop. I’ll wait for you. I’ll lead you out. Convo pace.’ All lies.”
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know. But how do I know you’re not lying now?”
“Easy,” I said. “I’m not on a bike. I’m sitting in a chair.”
Jerry wandered up and plopped down, heavily. “Man,” he said to me. “That was a gnarly hard pull you took back there. I was gonna go up to the front and take a pull and help you out.”
I looked at Sippy. “See?”
She nodded sagely. “Got it.”